Acton Commentary

Different Popes, Same Message


Is the social teaching of Benedict XVI consistent with that of his predecessor? One might conclude on the basis of some of the media debate surrounding Benedict’s recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate that Benedict XVI has deviated from the course taken during John Paul II’s pontificate. Such a conclusion is preposterous.

To avoid misunderstandings, we must consider first the basics. The pope voices his concerns about religious and social matters through documents called encyclicals. We should, however, never lose sight of the pope’s double role, as both pastor and active participant in contemporary events. As a religious leader, he must be concerned with the word of God revealed in the Bible and inherent in the teaching of the Church. As a participant in current events, the pope has the right (and duty) to evaluate them, especially if these events concern moral values, human life, and human dignity. He is therefore well aware of concrete issues in some departments of life, but he is not, nor does he pretend to be, a specialist in every domain. Nevertheless, he feels competent enough, and rightly so, to focus generally on things that trouble citizens of the world, especially when they cause moral controversies, perplex consciences, or even threaten human existence itself. Many find it difficult to distinguish the two roles of the pope: that of a worried pastor and that of a competent specialist. It is in this light that we must evaluate Benedict’s social encyclical.

The pope reveals his overarching intention already in the opening paragraphs of Caritas in Veritate. He is well aware of the complex picture of mankind in the twenty-first century and of various routes that the contemporary human beings wish to follow in their path forward. Trying to respond to all the challenges that may arise, the pope’s ultimate intention is to concentrate on integral human development [par. 8]. In this integral development we need to be committed to justice and the common good [par. 6].

Drawing on the time-honored conception of St. Augustine’s two (heavenly and earthly) cities, the pope focuses on justice and the common good and the foundations of the earthly city. The latter “is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion” [par. 6]. This is what in the first place we should mean by love for our neighbors: that we “take a stand for the common good” and are “solicitous for [...] that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally [...]” [par. 7]. In other words, Benedict has thus defined the area of activity in which every Christian should take a firm stance. Caritas in Veritate (love in truth) has thereby been translated into our daily practice. Loving one’s neighbors is strengthening their communities in all areas, above all in justice and the common good.

The Whole Person

Integral development also means what it has meant since the rise of modernity in the seventeenth century. It was then that man was philosophically divided into res cogitans (the thinking thing, or spirit) and rex extensa (the extensive thing, or body). Since that time, the two aspects of the human person, like lone wanderers, have been treading their separate ways. Thus reason was separated from faith, science from religion, and the intellect from morality. Many efforts have been made since that revolutionary moment to collect the discarded parts, to unite a dismembered and fragmented mankind. Benedict clarifies this point: “Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patters of the society of peoples and nations” [par. 9]. This is the condition of the contemporary world: People often are set on a journey after some illusive authentic being, oblivious of their ultimate aim, following different patterns, give in to consumptive urges, and imitate life presented in a sort of media-inflected virtual reality.

Neither the Church nor the pope offers a ready solution to the ailments of the world, but the Church has “a mission of truth to accomplish” [par. 9]. The crucial fact of this truth is that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” [par. 11]. This development does not reside in institutions alone, perfect though they might be; rather it resides in human persons who can freely assume “responsibility in solidarity” [par. 11]. The crucial area of this solidarity is economic activity.

Economics and Culture

If we consider human beings in their integral development, we should not treat any parts of this development as isolated elements, but rather as important elements of the whole. Our economic decisions are human decisions and we make them from the context of our human culture. The pope stresses: “The Church has always held that economic activity is not to be regarded as something opposed to society” [par. 36], although we must be aware that “economic action cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic” [par. 36]. Therefore human beings engaged in economic activity must bear in mind that “every economic decision has a moral consequence” [par. 37] and that they are called to other human activity that transcends mere economic matters. Drawing on John Paul II, Benedict states that besides economic activity we need a mature civil society “as the most natural setting for an economy of gratuitousness and fraternity” [38].

Benedict XVI is therefore not in opposition to John Paul II; on the contrary he thinks very much in line with the social documents of John Paul’s pontificate. Of utmost importance is Benedict XVI’s affirmation that ethics should precede technique (a literary quotation from his beloved predecessor). Our moral concerns should be given priority over our technological accomplishments. Caritas in Veritate, there is no doubt about it, continues the line traced by John Paul the Great.


Professor Jan Klos holds the Chair of Social and Political Ethics at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. He is the 2006 recipient of Acton Institute’s Novak Award. An extended version of this article will appear in Caritas in Veritate: A Reader (Acton Institute, 2010).